Five myths about the New Hampshire primary
DURHAM, N.H. - This year marks the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary, and some potent myths and misunderstandings have grown up about the Granite State’s political process over the past century.
To begin with, New Hampshire, which prides itself on having the nation’s first primary every four years, got into the game late, after Wisconsin and Florida. When New Hampshire held its first one, it was tied for second on the calendar with Minnesota, a week behind Indiana. Since 1920, its primary has been first in the nation, and the state has fought to keep that position. State law requires that the New Hampshire primary be held at least one week before any similar contest, and the Democratic and Republican parties help enforce its spot. But it might not last: Other states are envious of New Hampshire’s role, and the parties are nervous about how much influence it has in choosing the nominees.
For now, though, these myths are as persistent as the primary.
1. New Hampshire is dominated by independent voters.(Credit: AP)
This enduring myth gets resurrected every election cycle. 2016 is no exception: "New Hampshire's large numbers of independent voters have contributed to its reputation as a mercurial swing state," the Boston Globe reported in November. This "mercurial" reputation is fostered by such articles, which confuse voters who register as "undeclared" with "independents."
But "undeclared" voters are not necessarily independent. About 4 in 10New Hampshire voters decline to affiliate with a party when they register, while about 3 in 10register as Democrats and the same share as Republicans. When asked if they identify with a party, about a third of the "undeclared" registered voters say they are independent; the rest split about evenly between the major parties. So among registered voters, less than 15 percent are actually "independent," and only about one-third to one-half of them vote in the primary.
The Globe also noted that the impact of the independents "may be felt like never before in February's presidential primary, playing a crucial role in choosing the winner from this season's crowded and tumultuous field of Republican candidates." The article quoted Sarah Crawford Stewart, the head of Jon Huntsman's 2012 New Hampshire primary campaign: "There is no doubt that independent voters will decide this primary." Huntsman finished a distant third, typical of candidates whose strategy depends on winning independents.
Voters who personally identify with a party but register as undeclared do not make up a majority of either party's primary electorate, which typically consists of 60 percent or more registered partisans. Ever since there have been polls to measure party affiliation, no candidate has won the New Hampshire primary without winning a plurality of his or her party's registered voters. Even John McCain in 2000beat George W. Bush among registered Republicans, despite the Bush campaign's gripes about Democrats and independents voting for McCain.
2. Endorsements matter.(Credit: AP)
In the political-science world, endorsements are an important signal of who will win their party's nomination. And local politicians' endorsements of presidential contenders in New Hampshire are regularly trumpeted. The Globe publishes an "endorsement tracker" that tallies the support for each candidate from state pols.
But the evidence that endorsements by New Hampshire political figures mean anything is modest, at best. Among Republicans, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are leading the endorsement fight with 12 each, while Hillary Clinton has locked up almost all of the state's Democratic bigwigs. But Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leading in the polls.
In reality, politics in the Granite State is largely a volunteer activity. State senators and representatives make $100 per year and have very few paid staffers. State agencies are famously underfunded and understaffed. This makes it difficult to put together the political machines that endorsements usually bring. As longtime politico Tom Rath told us: "Most politicians in New Hampshire don't really have any organizations . . . because of the lack of opportunities for patronage in the state. They don't do the care and feeding of political workers the way folks in other states do."
3. Polls predict who will win the New Hampshire primary.(Credit: AP)
After Sen. Ted Cruz won the GOP's Iowa caucuses, pundits have looked to polls to forecast New Hampshire. A Politico survey of "insiders" found a general sense that Trump would win here Tuesday, in large part because of his "overwhelming lead in the polls, which is far larger than his advantage in Iowa." Late this past week, a flurry of new polls came out, each generating plenty of media buzz.
But what does history tell us about the predictive ability of polls in the Granite State? In 2008, all the public polls predicted a Barack Obama victory, by an average of eight percentage points, over Hillary Clinton. When Clinton won by 2.6 points, ABC News's pollster declared the result a "polling fiasco," saying, "It is simply unprecedented for so many polls to have been so wrong."
The professional organization for the polling industry, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, conducted an inquiry into polling during the 2008 nomination cycle that proved inconclusive as to the cause of the "fiasco." What neither the network pollster nor the AAPOR recognized is that the New Hampshire primary polls are frequently wrong in predicting not only the margins of victory but also the winners.
- In 1980, a CBS poll showed Ronald Reagan beating George H.W. Bush by 45 points, though his actual margin of victory was 27 points.
- In 1984, the final Washington Post-ABC News poll had Walter Mondale tied with Gary Hart, and the final CNN poll had Mondale winning by six points. Hart won by nine.
- In 1988, Gallup had Bob Dole beating George H.W. Bush by eight points, and the Post-ABC poll had Dole up by three.Bush won by nine.
- In 1996, CNN-Time showed Dole winning by 15 points. Patrick Buchanan won by one point.
- In 2000, the average of all polls showed John McCain beating George W. Bush by eight points. McCain won by 18 points, more than twice what polls predicted. Though this was a larger average error than in 2008, it was not labeled a "fiasco," nor did the AAPOR investigate the causes.
Why are polls often wrong? It's not usually because of methodological issues but because of timing. When pollsters conclude their interviews (some by Friday, others as late as Sunday), many voters have not made up their minds. Exit polls show that 30 to 45 percent of voters make their decisions in the final three days of the campaign, and 15 to 20 percent do so on Election Day itself.
It is wise for voters and pundits to avoid putting too much stock in polls, particularly those conducted weeks before the election.
4. Voters need to see candidates multiple times before making up their minds.(Credit: AP/Charles Krupa)
In the media, New Hampshire voters come off as pretty demanding. Reflecting the views of many candidates and journalists, one writer recently noted: "Over decades the primary voters of New Hampshire have come to revel in their 'First Primary in the Nation' status. They have come to expect to see candidates in person, up-close and personal - and often, more than once." That is virtually the same statement expressed 20 years ago by the Associated Press: "New Hampshire activists take their presidential primary pretty seriously, often demanding to meet the candidates several times before choosing sides." A Washington Post article four years ago noted: "The voters who attempt this feat during primary season - trying to meet every serious candidate, preferably more than once - are the earnest heart of this politics-obsessed state."
Earnest heart or not, University of New Hampshire Survey Center data suggests that only about 15 to 20 percent of New Hampshire primary voters typically attend even one political rally, speech or other campaign event. And only about 10 to 15 percent shake hands with a candidate.
While those figures are quite high compared with voter engagement in other states' primaries, it still means that about 4 in 5 voters get all their information from campaign literature, friends and the media - not from seeing the candidates personally, much less seeing them multiple times. Of course, because New Hampshire hosts the first primary, the campaign season here is very long, so some voters take advantage of the opportunity to see candidates a lot. But such obsession is hardly the norm.
5. An underdog who wins in New Hampshire can use the momentum to win the nomination.(Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton)
New Hampshire is a small state, so little-known candidates with relatively little money can perhaps overcome these limits by dint of greater energy and commitment, something that would be impossible elsewhere. And winning the New Hampshire primary gives candidates big boosts in momentum. So the myth of the plucky underdog capturing the nomination through hard work in New Hampshire remains a common trope this cycle and has spread as far as Britain.
It's rare, however, that an underdog has won the primary and gone on to win the party's nomination. The myth exists because of George McGovern's good showing (although not a win) in 1972, which did ultimately lead to his nomination, and because of Jimmy Carter's 1976 primary victory, which also led to his nomination and election as president.
But no other underdog candidate in either party has duplicated that strategy. After winning New Hampshire, Republicans Patrick Buchanan in 1996 and McCain in 2000 were quickly dispatched in subsequent contests. Among Democrats, Hart's 1984 victory in New Hampshire gave him a great deal of momentum, though ultimately he lost to the establishment favorite, Mondale. Paul Tsongas' win in 1992 never made him a serious contender. Instead, it was Bill Clinton's surprise second-place finish that made him the "comeback kid" and provided momentum for his nomination.
This election cycle, the longtime leader in national GOP polls, Trump, is also leading in state polling, even after losing in Iowa. Among Democrats, Sanders, the underdog from neighboring Vermont, has widened his lead over Hillary Clinton and may well pull off a victory in the Granite State. But if history is a guide, Clinton - the early front-runner - remains the favorite to win the nomination.
Still, it's important to remember that history feels no obligation to be consistent.
Smith is the director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. Moore is a senior fellow with UNH's Carsey Institute. They are the co-authors of "The First Primary: New Hampshire's Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations."